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New reality for trade finance

Small to mid-sized companies struggle to get credit

Heath E. Combs -- Casual Living, July 2, 2011

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As the economy and home-related industries went into decline a few years ago, and retail bankruptcies were on the rise, the availability of factoring and related trade credit for furniture suppliers took a big hit.
     But most trade finance companies are reporting that their business these days has stabilized with a back-to-basics approach - judging clients by profitability, management and ability to pay.
     Trade finance is a many pronged field with a variety of options for suppliers.
    Furniture suppliers oft en use a factor to get advance funds - which in effect are asset-based loans on product delivered to retailers - for use as working capital.
     Retailers are then extended terms by a factor, which collects on the receivables. Most factors interviewed for this story said the industry's most common terms currently are about a month, with a grace period.
     Rick Mantin, president of Lyon Capital, said the industry has stabilized at its new reality. He said Lyon is a "true old-line factor" - it advances funds, manages accounts receivable, collects money and provides credit guarantees and non-recourse debt. In the past few years it expanded into non-funds advanced factoring and more recently into purchase- order financing.
     Lyon's volume in factoring has picked up in recent years because banks have reduced suppliers' credit lines.
Mantin said that within the furniture industry there is still a tremendous need for advanced funds and credit guarantees - meaning that if a retail customer fails to pay a factored invoice, Lyon assumes the loss. The need for funds has been a driver of business for Lyon as other sources stopped advancing money, he added.
     "Everybody sees what's going on in our industry with bankruptcies and consolidations," Mantin said. "It's a real tough time."
     Lyon gives most retailers terms of a net 30 days with a grace period. Some larger big box retailers get between 60- and 90-day terms. Some smaller retailers still ask for extended terms, although that really isn't an option these days for most, he said. "I'm always wary of a very small company who's asking for extended terms," Mantin said. "A lot of times in today's world what that really means is they're trying to make it a consignment sale without saying it. If they can get terms of 90 they'll try and sell it, and if they can't sell it, they're going to try to return it and are not going to have the money to pay for it."
     In purchasing, Mantin said there's a trend toward larger container shipments with lower profi t margins for the supplier and retailers.
     "I think importers are gett ing hammered (at) by the retailers to bring the price down as much as they can," he said.
     Tony Brown, managing director, sales and marketing for Delta Trade Finance, which has had a signifi cant focus on furniture for about four years, said credit has been drying up not just for suppliers and retailers, but for manufacturers in Asia as well. Delta extends credit on an unsecured basis with no collateral, said Brown, who calls the company a venturesome lender rather than a typical trade finance fi rm. The company focuses on U.S. importers with sales between $25 million and $350 million, he said.
     Its clients are typically well established and growing fast, but don't get the necessary support from banks and traditional factoring companies. Delta provides cash to exporters when they ship and gives importers terms or trade credit on goods brought into the United States.
     While many big companies are doing well and retail has improved in recent years, many U.S. lenders are still unwilling to extend financing to mid-size companies like they did before the recession, Brown said.
     "The banking environment is very good for large companies," he said. "But the problem is that mid-size companies and even small to mid-size companies are not getting the credit they deserve."
     That has left fast growing mid-size companies unable to borrow and short of working capital, he said.
While the United States has been worried about deflation, China - the industry's biggest source of imported home furnishings - has been dealing with rampant inflation and has already raised interest rates three times this year.
     Brown noted increases in raw material costs. "Labor costs have gone up at precisely the time when Chinese banks have been pressured by the Chinese government to hold back credit to companies," Brown said. "Banks in China are trying to hold back credit to cool things down."
    Delta, however, is able to extend credit and is "overcoming the cash-flow squeeze the Chinese exporters fi nd themselves under," Brown said.
     Michael G. Hudgens, head of business development, Southeast region, for CIT Trade Finance, said currently credit protection is the primary focus of the company's furniture business. Suppliers use the service to shield themselves from retail bankruptcies and nonpayment.
    Hudgens said the trade financing business is stabilizing, due to a washout of weaker companies and more willingness by banks to lend. But suppliers are still concerned, wondering where their next loss will come from.
     "There's still a lot of volatility in the industry at the retail level," Hudgens said. "It's somewhat regional. As you might imagine, it kind of follows the trends of the economy in general."
     CIT is looking for strong companies with a good customer base and good relationships with its factories, he said.
Hudgens also noted that banks are starting to extend more credit to furniture retailers as a way to diversify their holdings and give themselves some assets to liquidate if things go wrong. He said there is support for the "right companies." Primarily regional banks, which traditionally had a book of business in real estate, are starting to lend more in the furniture realm because they can more easily tell what the collateral is worth than with real estate.
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     Scot Barber, vice president, business development, for Wells Fargo Finance, said the environment for trade finance is better this year than in 2010 and that the industry has improved a "little bit."
     Barber said small retailers are still having challenges getting consumers into their stores. Bigger, publicly held stores seem to be doing better, he added.
     In assessing its factoring clients, Wells Fargo looks for seasoned management and profitability, Barber said. Suppliers with solid relationships with source factories - especially if they can "lean on" the factories for some trade support - also have an advantage with Wells Fargo in obtaining trade credit, Barber said.

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